The American Intelligence Community: Expanse and “Special” Services

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Intelligence gathering is a never-ending cycle, which begins by identifying the target and, then, collecting and analyzing the said intelligence. Only facts and circumstances change. Besides its regular intelligence gathering system, America’s extensive intelligence community also takes part in some “special” services. What are those?

An investigator's desk with top secret envelopes.
Covert activities are those where the role of the US Government is not apparent or acknowledged publicly. (Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

“Special” Activities

No description of America’s Intelligence Community (IC) would be complete without the mention of a small, but significant, sub-category of activity—the so-called special activities.

These are covert actions conducted overseas, in support of the United States’ foreign policy objectives. They are considered part of the IC rather than the military for two reasons. What are those?

Why Covert?

First, the IC and the military operate under different systems of authority. The IC’s authority is mostly spelled out in Title 50 of the U.S. Code of Law. Furthermore, it reports its activities to the two intelligence committees of Congress. Under a different set of laws and limitations, contained in Title 10 of the U.S. Code, the military reports through the armed-services committees of the Congress.

The other reason relates to the nature of how the US expects others to perceive its actions. Military actions are, at least eventually, intended to become public.

By contrast, covert activities are those where the role of the US Government is not apparent or acknowledged publicly. For years, America publicly denied conducting drone attacks in Pakistan. The covert program started as a special activity of the CIA precisely because the United States intended not to publicly or officially acknowledge what it was doing there.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

How Big Is the US Intelligence Enterprise?

Definitive answers are classified, but there is enough information in the public domain to get a decent sense of the expanse of US intelligence network.

The Washington Post reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed scores of people, to compile the first unclassified database of American intelligence activity in a report a few years ago that it headlined as “Top Secret America”.

The Post identified 1,271 government organizations and 1931 private companies as part of the IC. They were in roughly 10,000 locations in the United States and they were working on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. The Post also reported that at least 854,000 people were working in the IC and held top-secret clearances.

The Intelligence Community’s Security Classification

There are a lot of people who have secret clearances. But what, exactly, does it mean?

Well, top-secret information is defined as information whose unauthorized disclosure would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. Secret, by contrast—that’s just plain secret, not top secret—is information that would cause only serious damage to national security.

Classified information may be shared only with people who hold a commensurate classification. Thus, if you hold a secret-level clearance, you would not be authorized to read top-secret documents.

Learn more about surveillance during the Cold War.

SCI Classification

There are also a number of supplemental designations that aren’t, strictly speaking, classifications, but which, nevertheless, prescribe limitations on the dissemination of classified information.

The best example of these is something known as sensitive compartmented information, or SCI. The SCI is typically top-secret information whose dissemination is limited to a compartmentalized group of individuals who are identified as having a need to know that type of information.

Talent Keyhole

One example is the SCI designation known as Talent Keyhole (TK). Talent Keyhole refers to top-secret information that is derived from overhead satellite imagery. It’s particularly restricted because, of course, seeing the clarity of the pictures that our satellites take—or conversely the lack of clarity in some pictures—gives the observer information about the capabilities and methods of American satellite surveillance.

The original TK compartment was created for U-2 airplane surveillance back in the 1950s. Today, it covers most of the work of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Special-Access Program

Usually, the special-access program (SAP) designation is a nonsensical two-word structure such as hazel roof that defines a very narrow compartment of information, to which only a few people have access.

So, if someone ever tells you they have access to the granite wind program, they’re boasting that they have access to a very special compartment of information—one that you’ll never be able to see.

Learn more about the birth of the CIA.

US Intelligence Budget

The US intelligence budget—excluding the Military Intelligence Program—is currently in the range of $50 billion a year, and rose by about one-third during the more than decade-long War on Terror.

People network hologram against a planet and a night cityscape. Global business concept.
It is reported that people in roughly 10,000 locations are part of the US intelligence community. (Image: ImageFlow/Shutterstock)

Of course, the budget disclosure is deficient in a number of ways. It doesn’t include the military portion of our intelligence system which, as you might surmise, is quite large. And it’s just the top line of the budget. We don’t know how the money is divided among the 17 intelligence agencies.

We do know that it includes salaries for about 100,000 people, thousands of outside contractors, multibillion-dollar satellite programs, aircraft, weapons, electronic sensors, intelligence analysis, spies, computers, and software.

But, a real grasp of the structure and operations of the intelligence bureaucracy has been totally beyond public reach. This kind of material, even on a historical basis, has simply not been available.

Managing US Embassies and Intelligence Gathering

So, we have this giant leviathan or sea monster. Does it work? Probably. One notorious example burst into public view in May 2009, when retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair—who was then the director of national intelligence—and Leon Panetta—then the CIA director—squared off over who was going to manage the intelligence from US embassies abroad.

At the time, Blair briefed the president each day on global intelligence matters. And ostensibly, he was Panetta’s boss, as the head of the new umbrella agency overseeing federal intelligence operations.

But the CIA had been traditionally the country’s eyes and ears abroad. And someone from the CIA had always been the chief of station in each of our embassies.

But Blair suggested that as the director of National Intelligence, he should get to pick who managed intelligence from the US embassies and that he should be able to select from among all various agencies officials in each country, not just at the CIA.

Even though, on paper, Blair was the boss, in practice, the president sided with Panetta. And a few months later, the president accepted Blair’s resignation.

While competition can spur better effort, it also can, as this example illustrates, be inefficient. And that’s the story of our Intelligence Community—partially effective, and always obscure.

Common Questions about the American Intelligence Community

Q: What is SCI classification?

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is top-secret information whose dissemination is limited to a compartmentalized group of individuals who are identified as having a need to know that type of information.

Q: What is Talent Keyhole?

Talent Keyhole refers to top-secret information that is derived from overhead satellite imagery.

Q: What is the estimated US intelligence budget?

The US intelligence budget—excluding the Military Intelligence Program—is currently in the range of $50 billion a year.

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